Guerrero: Wake up, Democrats. Don't let Republicans own the issue of violent crime

FILE - A police tape blocks a road near the scene where a Sacramento County Sheriff's deputy was shot and a suspect was shot and killed in the Sacramento suburb of Carmichael, Calif., Friday, Jan. 15, 2021. Homicides in California rose again last year, as did other violent crimes, amid rising frustration as the state's top Democrats are seeking to keep their jobs in upcoming elections. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

One of the top issues on people’s minds as they vote in the midterm elections is violent crime. This isn’t exclusive to white Republicans swayed by “crime crisis” propaganda on Fox News or the race-baiting GOP ads about the issue.

Many people of color fear being murdered, raped or otherwise assaulted. They’re worried that their kids could be gunned down at school. They’ve long lived with disproportionate bloodshed because of chronic underinvestment in their communities.

On top of that, murders are on the rise nationally. Police killings of Black people are increasing. Hate crimes are at record-high levels, with Black people targeted more than anyone else. White terrorism is surging.

It’s no wonder, then, that it isn’t just Trumpists who fear violent crime.

While the most pressing issue for registered voters in the elections is still the economy, 61% of those who were surveyed by the Pew Research Center said violent crime is “very important” in shaping how they’ll vote. Black voters are most concerned, with 81% citing crime as a top issue. About 65% of Latinos said the same. It appears everyone is on edge about violent crime — with the exception of white liberals. A mere 34% of white Democrats cite violent crime as a top concern.

The GOP’s midterm messaging, focused on violent crime, seeks to capitalize on Democrats’ obliviousness. But the idea that violence-glorifying, gun-fetishizing Republicans will do a better job at keeping families safe is unlikely to sway Black or brown voters. It will work mostly on white voters who favor carceral and violent responses to crime. Unfortunately, that may be all the GOP needs.

Polls show that races in Pennsylvania, New York and Wisconsin have narrowed after Republicans spent tens of millions of dollars on ads that claim violent crime is on the rise and blame the problem on Democrats, featuring surveillance video of mostly Black and brown men committing crimes.

The ads attack Democrats as “soft on crime” and accuse them of supporting efforts to “defund the police” even as most Democrats have increased police funding. President Biden’s American Rescue Plan, supported by all the Democrats in Congress and opposed by all the Republicans, included an extra $350 billion that state and local governments could use to hire more police officers.

Democrats are playing defense on crime the way they do on immigration: by reinforcing misguided, militaristic responses that end up perpetuating the problem and ignoring its complex roots. David Turner III, a UCLA assistant professor of Black life and racial justice, argues that this strategy against violent crime could alienate Black voters, who know better. “We don’t want increased police presence, because what the research has shown is that regardless of socioeconomic status, increased police presence is not good for any Black community,” he told me.

He said Black voters are more likely to want proposals for preventing violent crime, such as after-school programs and job opportunities for young people.

They’re also more likely to support greater restrictions on gun ownership. Earlier this year, Biden signed into law a bipartisan gun reform bill that toughened background checks for some buyers, among other things.

Eight of the 10 states with the worst violent crime rates are solidly red, but Republicans haven’t proposed any new solutions. They talk about the issue only to score political points.

As falling gas prices eased some voters’ concerns about the economy this summer, Fox News host Tucker Carlson, America’s chief propagandist for white nationalism, urged Republicans to fault Democrats for a “crime wave.”

This country has a real problem with violent crime. That’s not what the GOP is talking about.

“What ‘crime’ means in this discourse is the wrong people are running around,” said Jason Stanley, a professor of philosophy at Yale University and author of “How Fascism Works.”

The “wrong people” — foreign people, Black people, brown people — are becoming more visible and vocal, and 70% of Republicans see that as “replacement” of white Americans. The replacement delusion has already motivated numerous racist massacres.

One ad paid for by Citizens for Sanity, a group tied to the architect of Trump’s immigration policies, Stephen Miller, shows a young Black activist in a Black Lives Matter T-shirt shouting into a bullhorn. “Hardened criminals rampaging without fear,” it warns. “No fear of arrest, no fear of prosecution, no fear of jail, no fear of any consequence at all. Instead, you are made to live in fear.”

Casting antiracist activists as frightening criminals who should be caged has a long tradition in white supremacist circles. As does hatemongering about immigrants.

Citizens for Sanity is also responsible for xenophobic ads that aired in the Major League Baseball playoffs. “The giant flood of illegal immigration is draining your paychecks, wrecking your schools, ruining your hospitals, and threatening your family,” the ad warned.

Republican efforts to frame Democrats as favoring “defund the police” are as inseparable from their dishonest attacks on Democrats as “open borders.” Both efforts betray their antagonism toward Black and brown people here. Democrats should be careful not to reinforce that antagonism by boosting their own tough-on-crime or tough-on-the-border rhetoric. That could backfire at the voting booth.

What won’t backfire is the truth.

Republicans don’t plan to keep Americans safe. They’re sowing chaos to keep us scared. The outcome of Tuesday's elections will depend on how many voters see through the Republicans’ gaslighting and reject them.


This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.